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From Disease to Looming Food Crisis, Gene Editing Could Unlock Solutions to Our Greatest Problems

December 17, 2018
Today, celiac disease affects one in 100 people worldwide, and with no cure, the only treatment is a gluten-free diet.

However, scientists are now exploring how gene editing technology, like CRISPR, could modify the protein of wheat so that those with celiac disease could enjoy foods that typically contain gluten.

Kansas Wheat, which is the cooperative agreement between the Kansas Wheat Commission and the Kansas Association of Wheat Growers, is currently supporting gene editing research to help discover celiac-safe wheat.

The organization’s vice president of research and operations, Aaron Harries, said the research “is a great platform for us to find how the protein can be edited to eliminate the part affecting those with celiac disease.”

The potential for celiac-safe bread is just one of the many doors that gene editing could open.

In an earlier Foreign Affairs magazine op-ed, Bill Gates underlined the importance of gene editing technology and why it could significantly improve the lives of countless individuals.

Over the next decade, gene editing could help humanity overcome some of the biggest and most persistent challenges in global health and development. The technology is making it much easier for scientists to discover better diagnostics, treatments, and other tools to fight diseases that still kill and disable millions of people every year, primarily the poor. It is also accelerating research that could help end extreme poverty by enabling millions of farmers in the developing world to grow crops and raise livestock that are more productive, more nutritious, and hardier. New technologies are often met with skepticism. But if the world is to continue the remarkable progress of the past few decades, it is vital that scientists, subject to safety and ethics guidelines, be encouraged to continue taking advantage of such promising tools as CRISPR.

Mr. Gates has seen firsthand how gene editing technology could help fight debilitating diseases and advance the world food supply.

With funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Target Malaria is exploring gene editing as an option to tackle the deadly disease directly at the source: the three species of female African mosquitos that are responsible for most malaria transmissions.

Target Malaria researchers are working to identify and cut fertility genes or genes key to transmission in the female malaria mosquitos. The mosquitos would eventually pass the edited genes onto their offspring, creating a self-sustaining modification that would reduce the malaria mosquito population.

On the agriculture side, the foundation funded a project by scientists from the University of Oxford that rearranged the cellular structure in rice plant leaves to allow the crop to produce higher yields with less water.

“That’s good for food security, farmers’ livelihoods, and the environment, and it will also help smallholder farmers adapt to climate change,” stated Gates.

One of the benefits to gene editing is it can take years off the process of a naturally occurring gene alteration. In developing a new crop, for example, the changes seen through gene editing can occur naturally but could take decades or even generations to occur. 

“These sorts of changes happen in nature and through normal breeding all the time,” said Dr. Ewen Mullins, who is a crop scientist at Ireland’s agriculture and food development authority Teagasc.

The fact that these changes can occur in nature over time is why the USDA decided to not place additional regulations on plants that are developed through gene editing.

“With this approach, USDA seeks to allow innovation when there is no risk present,” said U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. “Plant breeding innovation holds enormous promise for helping protect crops against drought and diseases while increasing nutritional value and eliminating allergens. Using this science, farmers can continue to meet consumer expectations for healthful, affordable food produced in a manner that consumes fewer natural resources. This new innovation will help farmers do what we aspire to do at USDA: do right and feed everyone.”

It’s important the United States and other countries continue to foster an environment that allows for innovative technologies, like gene editing, to operate in a responsible, ethical, and science-based manner.

Fortunately, on November 2, the U.S. government and 12 other nations joined together to support policies that enable agricultural innovation, including gene editing.

The non-binding statement presents several principles that each country agrees to follow in order to create an international system that is harmonized on how to regulate products of precision biotechnology, including gene editing.

The statement is in response to frequent regulatory roadblocks that companies can face when developing agricultural applications of precision biotechnology – whether for plants or animals.

Jacob Corn, the scientific director of the Innovative Genomics Institute and a faculty member at the University of California at Berkeley, emphasized the potential for gene editing technologies in a Washington Post op-ed:

CRISPR represents a triumph fundamental to research: Undirected scientific curiosity can lead to unexpected breakthroughs that improve our lives. CRISPR is able to dramatically accelerate biological discovery by “democratizing” gene editing. The tool gives scientists the ability to make new insights into the workings of life, for example, by testing how genes function during health and disease. The application of similarly fundamental biological discoveries has formed the cornerstone of almost every advance in human health, from new cancer drugs to cutting-edge cholesterol therapies.

As we enter 2019, BIO looks forward to the industry working to discover and unlock the remarkable advancements and developments that gene editing can provide for human health and environmental wellbeing.